Pride flag: what do the colours of the rainbow mean and what’s its history - as we celebrate Pride Month 2021

The rainbow flag is one of the most recognisable symbols of the LGBTQ+ community, and the story behind it starts in the late 1970s

Around the world, June is known as pride month, a month which aims at celebrating all things to do with the LGBTQ+ community. June represents Pride as it was the month that coincides with the Stonewall Riots that took place in 1969.

The rainbow flag is one of the most recognisable symbols of the LGBTQ+ community and pride - but where did this flag come from, and what do each of the colours mean?

This is everything you need to know.

The rainbow flag holds many meanings, and has become a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community (Photo: Robert Perry/Getty Images)The rainbow flag holds many meanings, and has become a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community (Photo: Robert Perry/Getty Images)
The rainbow flag holds many meanings, and has become a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community (Photo: Robert Perry/Getty Images)

What do the colours of the rainbow flag mean?

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Gilbert Baker, American artist and activist, is widely known as the artist who originally designed the rainbow flag.

According to the Gilbert Baker Foundation, the original flag that was launched in 1978 had eight stripes - hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo and violet.

Each of the eight colours represented a different meaning - hot pink represented sex, red represented life, orange represented healing, yellow represented sunlight, green represented nature, turquoise represented magic/art, indigo represented serenity and violet represented spirit.

However, the flag we know today doesn’t have eight stripes, it has six – red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

This is because in 1978, after gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated, demand for the rainbow flag greatly increased. In order to meet demand, the Paramount Flag company began selling a version of the flag using the stock rainbow fabric that was available, which omitted hot pink and indigo.

As Baker also upped the production of his own flag, he too dropped the hot pink stripe because of the unavailability of the fabric colour.

In 1979, the design of the flag was changed once again - when the flag was hung vertically from the lamp posts of San Francisco’s Market Street, the centre stripe of the flag was blocked by the post itself.

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The design was altered in order to have an even number of stripes as this was the easiest solution, and thus the turquoise stripe was dropped.

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What’s the history behind the rainbow flag?

In Baker’s memoir, called Rainbow Warrior, one of the chapters goes into detail about how he came up with the idea behind the flag.

Spending an evening with his friends Cleve Jones and filmmaker Artie Bressan, in early 1978, Baker describes Bressan pressing him “to come up with a new symbol for what he had called “the dawn of a new gay consciousness and freedom””.

Baker explains that at this point in time, the pink triangle was the symbol for the gay movement - but it represented a dark chapter in history for same-sex rights as it was conceived by Adolph Hitler during WWII as “a stigma placed on homosexuals in the same way the Star of David was used against Jews”.

“We all felt that we needed something that was positive, that celebrated our love,” Baker said.

He said that he started looking at the flags flying on various government buildings.

Baker says: “I thought of the American flag with its thirteen stripes and thirteen stars, the colonies breaking away from England to form the United States.

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“I thought of the vertical red, white, and blue tricolour from the French Revolution and how both flags owed their beginnings to a riot, a rebellion, or revolution. I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power.”

In his memoir, Baker says that later that week, he and Jones were at the Winterland Ballroom when his inspiration struck.

He said: “Everyone was there: North Beach beatniks and barrio zoots, the bored bikers in black leather, teenagers in the back row kissing.

“There were long-haired, lithe girls in belly-dance get-ups, pink-haired punks safety-pinned together, hippie suburbanites, movie stars so beautiful they left you dumbstruck, muscle gayboys with perfect mustaches, butch dykes in blue jeans, and fairies of all genders in thrift-store dresses.

“We rode the mirrored ball on glittering LSD and love power. Dance fused us, magical and cleansing. We were all in a swirl of colour and light. It was like a rainbow.

“A rainbow. That’s the moment when I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make.”

Baker said that the rainbow flag would become a “modern alternative to the pink triangle”.

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What other flags are there?

Since its inception in the late 70s, a number of other flags have grown in popularity.

While the rainbow flag works well as a general catch all for the LGBTQ+ community, people from within the community have also created their own flags that resonate with them.

Some popular flags you might see include:

- The bisexual flag which consists of three horizontal stripes, pink, lavender and blue

- The pansexual flag which features three horizontal stripes of magenta, yellow and cyan

- The transgender flag, which, from top to bottom, consists of five horizontal stripes - light blue, pink, white, pink, light blue

- The asexual flag, whose horizontal stripes go black, grey, white and purple

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- The non binary flag, which features four horizontal stripes of yellow, white, purple and black

Since 2018, a new version of the rainbow flag has also been gaining popularity amongst the LGBTQ+ community.

The flag features the classic six rainbow stripes, but on the left hand side of the flag is an arrow shape pointing into the centre of the flag, with a black, brown, light blue, pink and white stripe.

The flag was designed by Daniel Quasar, who identifies as queer and non-binary, in an effort to make a flag that represents “all aspects” of the LGBTQ+ community.

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